Does Street Evangelism Work?
A few weeks ago I read an amazing article written by a non Christian college student who went undercover as a believer on a missions trip with Liberty University, reaching out to the “lost” people partying during spring break at Daytona Beach, FL. After a few paragraphs I was hooked. I read every word of the lengthy testimonial. This amazing article not only provided incredible insight into the mind of an unbeliever, it proposed glaring questions about the success of this kind of evangelism methodology.
I immediately sent the article to my friend Greg Stier from Dare2Share and called him a few minutes later. Greg is passionate about evangelism and I respect his opinion on the subject. After a short conversation I told Greg, “You have to write an article responding to this article, because this article demands answers.”
A few days later I had an 8-page response from Greg in my inbox.
We normally don’t post or link articles of this size… but this time we’re making an exception. I encourage you to not only read the original article from the Liberty student above, but Greg’s detailed response below—you’ll find them both well worth your time. We’re posting the first few pages of Greg’s response with a link for the rest of the article. –Jonathan McKee
By Greg Stier
My buddy Jonathan McKee forwarded me a very interesting article he found on Salon.com written by a non Christian college student named Kevin who transferred to Liberty University. He was an undercover unbeliever with the goal of understanding how Christians think and get a sense of the evangelical culture from a firsthand “insider” perspective.
As part of his cultural experiment he decided to go on a weeklong outreach adventure over Spring Break with a group of 13 other Liberty students. Their mission? To bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the beer-guzzling, body-baring, sand-loving sinners on Daytona Beach. He was trained to share the gospel by the team leader and then unleashed with the rest of the team to comb the beach on a spiritual search and rescue mission.
After a solid week of almost constant rejections, the group consoled themselves with the thought that they had planted spiritual seeds that would sprout later. His conclusion was that these well-intentioned street evangelists had really not made any converts. Even the few who raised their hands to say yes to Jesus were not followed up on or plugged into local churches. Here is what he had to say about the follow up process with this band of cold turkey evangelists,
What’s even more interesting is that Roose didn’t seem to write this article out of vindictiveness or venom. He seemed to actually like the evangelical evangelists he was evangelizing with. He was seeking to understand why they were willing to go through all of the pain and strain of being persecuted without seeing much, if any, tangible results after a week of spreading the gospel to the Spring Breakers. His conclusion was that the prospect of seeing someone in hell was enough witnessing fuel to keep them going in the face of mockery and disdain.
You can read the entire article here and I strongly encourage you to do so.
Before I give my perspective on all this you’ve got to understand that I was born and bred on street evangelism. The first group of teenagers I witnessed to was when I was eleven years old (yes eleven). They were standing by Sloan’s Lake in North Denver and I approached them and shared my faith with them. I was terrified and trembling. I was hooked. This was the closest thing I had experienced to extreme sports and I loved it.
The church that reached my entire beer drinking, body-building, tobacco-chewing family (and yes, that was just the women!) was a street evangelist training ground. My tough and ripped, uncle Jack was led to Christ when the preacher at this church went to his house, knocked on his door and started sharing the good news of salvation.
That began a domino effect of salvation in my family. Uncle Jack came to Christ, uncle Bob and so on until virtually every member of my rather large extended family put their faith and trust in Jesus. So in a sense you can say that my entire family’s salvation began as a result of a preacher knocking on a stranger’s door and sharing Jesus.
I was immersed into this pre-evangelical world of fundamentalist Christianity and loved it. Why? Because, now I not only had a real Father, a Heavenly One, (I was the product of a one night stand and never knew my biological father) but I had a purpose, the salvation of souls from hell.
From that witnessing experience at Sloan’s Lake as a fifth grader to my freshman year at Liberty University, hardly a Friday night went by without me and my Christian compadres going “soulwinning” at local malls all across Denver.
Up to fifty of us would gather, train the newcomers and then drive to every mall in and around Denver to do cold turkey evangelism. We would break up into groups of two and share Jesus while trying to avoid mall security. Believe me, there is nothing more humiliating than being escorted out of a shopping mall by a rent-a-cop…and I had it happen several times.
While sharing my faith I have been hit, spit at, picked up by the throat, pushed down, laughed at and mocked relentlessly. But these became battle scars for my adolescent soul. I could talk about them and show them off later to my fundie friends. And, after all, every rejection was worth it if just one person put their faith and trust in Jesus. And unlike Kevin Roose we were equipped to get names and numbers of the people that we led to Christ and to get them plugged into our church where they too could be trained as street evangelists.
I estimate conservatively that I personally witnessed to 5,000 people between the time I was eleven and the time I was eighteen years of age. My closest cohorts, Art and Rick, went with me to the malls consistently, not to shop, but to talk to other teenagers. We were the kings of serving cold turkey evangelism sandwiches.
In a sad way, it was kind of a competition. The question, “How many did you get?” was bantered around after every evangelistic campaign. And, of course, we didn’t just mean souls saved but names and numbers for follow up. Regardless of how many said “yes” to Jesus, when we let our flesh take control, we were like out of control cowboys holding up the scalps of our latest spiritual conquest.
To be honest, out of all of the street evangelism I have done in my life I can only point to a handful of success stories, if you define success as someone who gets saved and then gets plugged into a faith community.
One of these stories is that of Kevin. I met Kevin at Westminster Mall about fifteen years ago or so. He was drunk, loud and kind of obnoxious. He and his buddies were kind of mocking me for sharing Christ with them. He claimed to be some kind of thug from New York City. He shared stories of his time in the Big Apple and how he had taken a big bite out of it…and sold it at a pawn shop. Unintimidated by his tough guy façade, I asked him if he’d be willing to read a book when he sobered up. He agreed. I went out to my car and got a copy of More than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell, gave it to him and said goodbye.
Almost ten years later I got an email from a guy named Kevin. It was the same one. He was now a Sunday School teacher for teenagers at a local church. These teens had heard Kevin’s testimony of meeting some crazy stranger at the Westminster Mall. They had also been to a Dare 2 Share Conference where they heard my Westminster Mall witnessing stories. They asked Kevin if it could be me. He thought maybe.
I’ll never forget the day Kevin and I met soon after that. He threw the More than a Carpenter book that I had given to him onto the table in my office and said, “That was the book you gave me so many years ago.” I opened it up and saw the notes that he had written in the margins as he followed through on his promise to me to read it.
He explained to me that he carried thirty or forty More than a Carpenter books in his car with him at all times. He especially loved reaching out to teenagers. It all started with sharing Christ with a complete set of strangers at a shopping mall.
But let’s be honest. This kind of thing takes place one out of a million times (so you’re saying there’s a chance!) You may have to witness in a mall for fifteen years, like I did, before you find one Kevin who is willing to be more than just a “yes man” to the gospel.
So do I think street evangelism works? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I have seen people put their faith in Jesus at a doorstep, in a mall, on a beach and, well, in the street (okay “sidewalk” is more accurate.) Countless people have looked me in the eye and said “yes” to Jesus. In my heart of hearts, I know that many of them were sincere. As Romans 10:13 reminds us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It makes no preconditions about location, depth of the relationship with the person, etc. If they genuinely believe in the person of Christ, then they truly receive the gift of eternal life. So, yes, I believe street evangelism works when it comes to making converts. But I don’t believe street evangelism works well when it comes to making disciples.
Kevin and a handful of others are an exception to that rule. But here I must add a brief but powerful caveat: I have no idea how many people I have led to Christ over the years who later got plugged into a good local church due to a family member or a friend. If they truly became a Christian then the Holy Spirit came to dwell inside (Ephesians 1:13-14) and will lead and guide them into fellowship with other believers. Perhaps He uses those believers they currently know to help plug them in but He will not stop working in them and on them until they are part of a body of believers who can help sustain their faith.
Isn’t it the responsibility of the evangelizing believer to do his/her best to follow up on those they lead to Jesus? Yes! But I can tell you from three decades of hands on experience it is much easier to lead a person to Christ than to get them to agree to give you their contact information. Even if you do it is very difficult to get them to say “yes” to attending church with you. Over my decades of mall evangelism, I coined the phrase, “It’s easier to get somebody out of hell and into heaven that it is from the mall to the church.”
Does that mean that I think we shouldn’t do street/mall/park/beach evangelism? No. I just think we should try to do it differently.
Now some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Hey, isn’t this Greg Stier, the Dare 2 Share guy? Don’t you guys take tens of thousands of teenagers out to do street evangelism door to door in cities all across the nation?” Yes and yes.
But, to be honest, God has been taking me on a journey of reflection over the last several months and I am trying to figure out where He is leading. You see, my goal is to make as many disciples as I can before I die, not as many converts as I can. Making converts is merely additional (souls added to the kingdom). But making disciples is exponential (souls multiplied through disciples making disciples who make more disciples.) And the street and the shopping mall are not the best places for making disciples. Again, we may have opportunities in various places with various strangers and we should make the most of them. As Paul reminds us in Colossians 4:2-4,
We need to make the most of every opportunity we have to wisely and gracefully share the good news of Jesus with “outsiders.” God may be using you to plant a seed, water the seed or reap the harvest with those strangers He brings across your path. But I am more and more convinced that sharing Christ with strangers must be done in a very specific way.
Relational and Relentless
About the time I started Dare 2 Share Ministries (originally called “Warriors for Christ” or, as I joke about it now, “Jihad for Jesus”), I also married a special girl. Debbie was everything I was not. She was sweet, quiet, intuitive and ultra-relational. She loved to ask questions and listen. I, on the other hand, was confrontational, loud and ultra-clueless. I loved to give answers and talk. When we went to the mall together I would say “Let’s witness!” and she would say “Let’s shop!” I loved her deeply but secretly thought she was wimpy when it came to evangelism. She loved me deeply but secretly thought I was obnoxious in my approach.
Then something strange began to happen. Over the years we began to rub off on each other. She became more relentless in her faith sharing and I, ever so slowly, become more relational in mine. Debbie is a fifth grade public school teacher and in one school year she led twenty-one kids to Christ, brought five families out to our church and never got one complaint. Why? Because the conversations she had were student-initiated (they saw the light of Christ in her) and all the parents, teachers and administration loved her (and still do by the way.)
She’s the reason I first began to consider the power of relationships when it came to evangelism. I saw her effectiveness and was secretly jealous. She had done more in one school year on a discipleship level (plugging five families into our church) than I had done in a lifetime of street evangelism. But she tells me that she would have never seen that success if at least some of my relentlessness for outreach had not rubbed off on her.
Another milestone along the way toward relational and relentless evangelism was the filming of GOSPEL Journey Maui last year. Dare 2 Share Ministries flew in complete strangers (Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Seventh Day Adventist, New Ager, Zane and me), most of whom we found through a Craig’s List ad, for eight days worth of spiritual conversations on the island of Maui. What is interesting is that the conversations are still going on more than twelve months later. Jasser, A-Rae, Jonathan, Rachel, Emma and Priscilla became Zane and my friends during the filming and they remain so to this day. Yes, one of them trusted Christ and is on the pathway of discipleship (you’ll have to watch it to see who) but I remain committed to keeping in contact with each of them.
During this filming I took a different tack than I normally did, I tried to listen as much as I talked. This was especially hard for a rapid fire evangelist like me (if I got paid by the word I’d be a rich man.)
All during the filming I kept reminding myself of my wife. I imagined her by my side whispering in my ear, “Don’t talk yet honey. Listen to them. Don’t just pretend to listen, really listen. And love them no matter what. And when it is your time to talk you can be your relentless self and chatter away. And guess what, they’ll probably listen to you because you’ve done such a good job at listening to them.”
In the end, the inner voice of my wife (or maybe it was the Holy Spirit) won the day and the results were amazing. The more I listened to them, the more they listened to me. Pretty soon we were in genuine conversations, not just the typical “my facts are better than yours” apologetic show downs. Once the walls fell down, we started to really talk. I was considering what they had to say and they were considering what I had to say.
At one point, Emma, our yoga-instructing Buddhist from Boulder, said to me something like, “One of the reasons that I am considering Christ is because of the love I feel emanating from you and Zane and the camera crew and production team. I sense there is something to this whole Jesus thing.”
Wow. Who would have ever thought as love being the ultimate apologetic? Oh yeah. I guess Jesus would have.
We live in an either/or world. But Jesus’ approach is both/and. When it comes to evangelism styles we need to embrace the way of Jesus. He was both relational and relentless. Read the Gospels and look at the way that Jesus poured into his disciples. He was relational at times (washing mud encrusted feet) and relentless at others (like when he told Peter, “Get behind me Satan….”)
Did Jesus do cold turkey evangelism? Yes! But He did it in a relational and relentless way…
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on TheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.